Tuvalu seeks more than $1B for land reclamation survival plan

Stephen Wright
Tuvalu seeks more than $1B for land reclamation survival plan This undated image shows a seven-hectare land reclamation on the principal island of Tuvalu’s Funafuti atoll following its completion in November 2023.
Hall Contracting

Tuvalu, a low-lying Pacific atoll nation an arm’s length above high tide, will seek more than U.S. $1 billion for a land reclamation plan that’s crucial to surviving projected sea-level rise, Finance Minister Seve Paeniu said.

The island nation of 12,000 people has been advocating for the proposal to more than double the size of its most populated islet during the COP28 United Nations international climate conference underway in the United Arab Emirates. 

Currently there is no climate adaptation fund large enough to finance the plan, even as calls grow to help vulnerable nations that lack the economic wherewithal to cope with the consequences of higher average temperatures.

“As we see it, the only means to protect and save Tuvalu from the damaging effects of rising seas is to build more land and build upwards,” Paeniu told BenarNews in an interview on Monday. 

A seven-hectare land reclamation that added about 5% to the area of Fogafale – the principal island of Funafuti atoll – was completed in November and hailed by Tuvalu’s government as a “landmark moment.” It was mostly financed by the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund and along with coastal protection works on two other islands in Tuvalu cost about $36 million. 

Paeniu said it demonstrates that modern engineering and community planning could help Tuvalu face sea-level rise and determine its own fate. 

The bigger ambitions, known as the long-term adaptation plan, are going through a due diligence and costing phase that will also result in a financing strategy, according to Paeniu.

He said three phases were envisaged, the first being the relocation of the airport runway which dominates Fogafale and that could start in 2025 and take three to four years. It would also allow the runway to function as a rain-water catchment and help address the persistent shortages of fresh water in Funafuti.

Tuvalu, a two-and-a-half hour flight north of Fiji, has become emblematic of the plight faced by low-lying islands from projected sea level rise over the coming century. 

Kiribati and the Republic of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean are also dramatically low lying but have more land than Tuvalu, which totals just 26 square kilometers (10 square miles). 

The land reclamation plan was first announced by Tuvalu and the U.N. Development Programme during the 2022 climate conference or COP – short for Conference of the Parties to the U.N. agreement among nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Paeniu said the cost was still to be finalized but estimated at the “low billion mark.” 

The International Monetary Fund said in a July report on Tuvalu that the long-term adaptation plan is estimated to cost 2.0 billion Australian dollars – the currency used in Tuvalu – about $1.3 billion at the current exchange rate. 

“This is a direct adaptation response to the effects of climate change and this is also the true cost of adaptation to climate change,” Paeniu said. “It cannot be denied that climate finance would need to be supporting permanent solutions, and for Tuvalu, this is our permanent adaptation solution.”

Minister of Finance and Economic Development of Tuvalu, Seve Paeniu (second from right), speaks during a press conference, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Dec. 11, 2023. [Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters]

Many countries say climate-adaptation funds are tough to access because of complex and resource-consuming processes. Even the U.N.-backed Green Climate Fund – the world’s most prominent climate fund – conceded in an internal review that the convoluted process puts its reputation at stake.

“I think we have been heard,” said Paeniu of Tuvalu’s lobbying efforts at COP in Dubai.

Without building up and extending land, half of Funafuti will be inundated by tidal waters by 2050 and 95% by the end of this century, based on one-meter of sea-level rise projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

At its widest, Funafuti is about 400 meters (1,300 feet), a parcel of land that packs together the airport runway, government buildings, infrastructure and homes. At one of the atoll’s narrowest slivers, mere meters, ocean waves crash on one side of the road while lagoon waters lap placidly on the other.

Aside from some imports, most of the limited supply of fresh fruit and vegetables in Funafuti is grown in rows of boxes raised off the porous atoll ground at a garden established by Taiwan’s aid agency. 

Land reclamation would about double the area of Funafuti by reclaiming 3.6 square kilometers (1.4 square miles) from the lagoon and linking Fogafale to two smaller islets. 

The overall plan, Paenui said, would provide sufficient space even if people in the outer islands moved to Funafuti. 

It also has the potential to relieve other problems such as fresh water scarcity and lack of space for crops, accommodation and infrastructure, proponents of the plan say.


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